By: Roliena Slingerland
“Can you come home for a bit?” Mother’s voice crackles on the other end of the phone.
“I can’t.” The quickness of her lie startles even Gretta.
Coming home is not the first choice these days. She sticks to the adventurous part of life’s buffet. The outrageous, the new that tingles and dazzles her palate. Home is some stiff box in a hick town – predictable and stale.
“I thought your deli job fell through.”
Gretta’s tongue runs along her teeth. Fuzz. She squints at the clock. 12:20 pm. “I have a bunch of important stuff to do. I can’t just drop everything, Mom.”
Some lies are of course bigger. These are the obvious ones – ones no one can dodge from.
Then the little lies; the white ones. Coated in a veneer of truth.
“It’s Mac. He’s doing poorly.”
Gretta jumps off the bed, wondering how mothers always know exactly where the exposed nerve lies.
She hops around her unmade bed, looking for her right canvas shoe, the bed a tornado of sheets, empty take-out cartons on the dresser, and that dorm-like staleness that hovers predictably.
Keys. Where are her keys?
Janelle. That insufferable girl! She hadn’t returned daddy’s beat up Bronco. Probably still out partying. If she gets puke on the seats – cracked leather or not – !
“Tomorrow, Mom. I’ll be home in the morning.”
A stir of girlish excitement fills her belly.
Clarksville, Alberta has all but shut down, an injured animal drawing its limbs inwards. A particularly nasty squall nipped at Gretta’s heels all the way home, only to sink its teeth into the village as if it would never let go.
For Gretta, recollections of university and independence are merely whispers in the breeze. A gap year in Rome, two years on scholarship, and suddenly it’s over. She has knowledge and skills, but no job, not even a dead end one. You’re just a failure, a voice accuses. A bitter laugh escapes. She’d really come home to see Mac, but now she was sealed by the very walls she despised!
In the spirit of a five-year-old, her forehead is plastered to her bedroom window, shivers running up her spine as tiles are plucked off the neighbor’s roof, tossed up in some chaotic, dance before plummeting to the ground below. An invisible hand jerks around chairs and pots and garbage, anything not lying seamless with the earth, and for a moment, she wishes she could jump out the window and join in nature’s unbridled passion, to be part of heart-hammering havoc.
Except she is no longer five, and jumping out the window, even at twenty-one, is never advisable. If only she could snap her fingers and become a bird, wheeling through the air at the edges of a storm, away from the grating everyday.
The wind throttles the house again for good measure, and she feels anew the squeeze of the walls, the stifling air, the grating hum of the Janome downstairs, mother’s fingers engaged in their age-old mechanical dance. The scream bottled up inside her strains against her windpipe.
The mournful kitchen clock intrudes. It’s her cue. She’d promised mother she’d make supper. But she isn’t sure she’s ready for more talk about Murray’s false teeth, or Mrs. Lucey breaking her hip, all the while mother’s dish cloth fluttering here and there. Of course, she will dutifully feign interest. An already wrinkleless table cloth will be straightened, a pot nudged closer to the centre, mother’s smile reflecting the adage she’s worn to brass tacks: “God is in heaven and all is right with the world.” It’s times like this Gretta wants to swipe the table cloth, plant and all off the table. Let the vase break and crumble. Let the dirt trail the floor. For one moment, let chaos prevail. Then she could yell, Look, mother, the world has not ended!
“A job’ll come. It’s only spring. You’ve got time.” Mother lives in the calm surface of life and never ventures into its currents and eddies. With father dead for a few years already, ushered out of this world with a heart attack, mind you, not the grand finale he’d been anticipating, it’s just mother. Ever since his departure, she’s worked part time at the Extendicare in town. When she’s not working, she’s paying obeisance to her sewing machine.
Gretta slams the dresser drawer closed, catching her finger. The pain pulses with her heartbeat. Sucking it hard, she whips it about like a rag as if pain can actually be shaken off. Faded walls stare. No debate. No intellectual conversation can be found in the swirls of vintage petals.
University, milling people, The Big City. It all seems so far away. Emptiness like a cold and barren landscape stretches before her, and something presses upon her throat.
The phone jangles. Gretta moves to the top of the stairs.
Mother’s soft voice. “Lucille.” She states the name matter of fact, silence mushrooming around her. “Yes, of course. I imagine it’s not easy for you, either.” In the vertebrae of light spilling in from the kitchen, she instinctively rubs her arthritic ankle. “We certainly will do so.” She turns to the machine once again, her foot doing that tap dance; off the pedal, on again. The silver needle lowers and lifts its head in steady, quiet resignation. The hands that nimbly feed material into the machine are freckled, the skin more like parchment paper; her back bows forward in that gentle curve down which life slides, not budging so much as a strand from the perfectly coiled bun at her nape.
“I’m going for a quick walk first,” Gretta announces, like some desperate woman wanting to get out of her body and mind, into the pockets of silence between the rages of the wind.
Mother looks up, her thin lips a tight receptacle for a sewing pin or two. She dislodges them. “Oh, Greta – ”
“I’ll be fine. It’s just a bit of wind.”
She sighs, knowing it’s useless to argue. “Alright, the wind has gone down a notch, I guess you can go check on him already.”
“That phone call?”
“Yes. It’s Lucille. Her father in the States fell ill and she needs to return home right away. She was wondering if we could check in on Mac regular like beginning tomorrow already.”
“I’ll go now! I’ll be careful.” She can already smell his house with that hint of bacon grease mingled with cigarette smoke. It would be like climbing into an old playhouse she’s not visited for years and wondering if time has left it unscathed.
Mac Bergen’s white clapboard with its open wounds of blistering paint perches, as it has for years, unapologetically on top of a low hill. Vietnam vet and war hero. It didn’t matter then to the townspeople that he was American and not Canadian, that many in his own country felt much less appreciative of the soldiers’ involvement in the Vietnam war. He was a hero after all. He’d come home a little less intact than when he left – two legs in fact. The stumps were long healed by the time she’d come around, but with childish boldness and inquisitiveness, she stroked the thickened skin many times, running her fingers over the uneven patchwork.
Gretta’s cheeks burn, and she welcomes the cover of dusk.
Father would proudly take him to the Remembrance Day ceremonies in the town square, wheel his chair at first, and then support him on his artificial limb in later years. Children would swarm around the car. He was an interesting and unique specimen. He’d barely emerged from the jaws of war – a relic from a place and circumstance they could never fathom, seen things no mind could paint. Father, such a centrifugal force in the community, a solid church going man, would cough up phlegm and nod approvingly as a wide berth was made for them to the cenotaph. Warmth would swell inside of her as she heard snatches of praise regarding father.
The instant she seals the warmth behind her, wind lashes at her face. For a moment she feels as if she is stepping amongst the wounded. Saplings tremble and bow under the violence; tall trees stand naked, their tender limbs amputated.
Then in the midst of the chaos, a little light winks, pulling her forward with magnetic force, while the wind pushes against her with its iron fist.
She recalls Mac’s deep voice as he told stories with more vigor and color than the storybooks that line her shelf. He painted the Vietnamese countryside in such bold and brilliant hues, his tongue an expert brush. She’d clung to the rich baritone as he conjured scenes of valiant soldiers swooping into a war-torn country, into the very mouth of the devil himself, meeting a rush of excited and thankful Vietnamese women, and happy children. And with him and father, she felt safe. Not even the monsters in her dreams could touch her. Her hero would slay them. That he probably embellished a bit didn’t matter. What did she know of war? He could paint them with whatever brush he wanted.
He let her build towers from empty cigarette cartons. Here she could make a mess. Here she could run in the house, her bare feet slapping linoleum.
Father’s eyes shone when he’d found a motorized wheelchair for Mac. And when the artificial limbs finally came in, she wasn’t sure who was more excited. The two recounted the news and blasted the government, their favorite subjects. The government was to blame for everything. It did not support its veterans. It threw entire communities into a tailspin on the eve of Y2K. It created hysteria.
They played scrabble and monopoly. Sometimes Gretta could join. More often than not, she chased Mac’s cat, Mickey, instead, and lay on the floor on her back, watching the grey haze of cigarette smoke while pretending to be in the thick of battle, re-enacting battle scenes as father and Mac indulged her. Here she could prattle like a chatter box, and no one shushed her. They laughed at her jokes, tickling her until no breath remained.
Mac always had chocolate milk. Thick and creamy and cold. As it slid down her throat, she often wondered if perfection could get any better.
In high spirits everyone returned home; father laughing merrily, Gretta chatting gaily. Mother merely smiled from behind the Janome. She accepted this rhythm to their lives, encouraged it.
The gravel drive crunched under her feet. Scraggly grass, untrimmed bushes, and a few aspen trees with skeletal arms raised in a desperate plea to the heavens welcome her. A barely-there address reads: 65 7. A few metal lawn-chairs, relics from an earlier era, lay toppled, rust-eaten, and bent out of shape.
Excitement – or fear? – courses through her. All that stands between her and Mac is the same wooden door, albeit peeling, that she’d always pushed open ahead of father, not even bothering to knock, and sprinted inside.
The handle is cold and for a fleeting moment, she feels unsure. But she raps at the door anyway, softly then boldly.
“Is that you, Lucy?” The voice sounds harsh and scratchy.
Gently she nudges the door open. “Mac? It’s me…”
“Who’s me?” The voice is demanding, yet wary.
A creak, and then the door moves from her hands.
His eyes run unchecked over her tall frame, and suddenly she feels self-conscious. She is no longer a carefree girl in ponytails. She awards him with the same appraisal. Is this really Mac? Shorter than she remembers, even though he’s in a wheelchair, and skinnier – far skinnier! His skin drapes over him like flesh on a hanger. His grey eyes are tinged with yellow and the deep brown hair replaced by tatters of grey moss.
“Come in, Gretta girl. For a moment thought Lucille had changed her mind.”
Gretta girl. A familiar caress.
Nothing seems to have changed. The once bold, striped wallpaper is still yellowed and peeling, while the cloud of grey smoke has taken up residence in the upper quadrant of the kitchen. A pair of plastic legs laze in a corner; smooth and sturdy and unaged. He’d never grown to like them. The thin, metal blinds are tight and pulled down, coated in greasy fuzz and barricading against any natural light. Cartoonish art still hangs askew on the wall. A simple calendar remains sloppily affixed above the table and serves simply to show the march of days.
Except for now, there is a faint medicinal smell, courtesy of a battalion of bottles amidst the dishes on the counter.
Mac wheels himself to the table, the mechanical chair drowning him. He moves a chipped glass ashtray overflowing with butts. “Just havin’ tea. Want some?”
“Sure. I’ll get myself a cup.”
He gestures at the same avocado counter. Suddenly, she feels at home, her hands easily drawn to the familiar cupboard she’d opened many times.
She fills her own chipped cup and sinks into an opposite chair. The tea is strong and bitter.
“It’s been long, Gretta girl, ain’t it?” He shakes his head.
“School, Mac, and – ”
He shakes his head. “Yer livin’ your life. That’s what you gotta do.” He coughs then, a violent paroxysm that seems to overtake him and wring him dry. Spent, he leans back in his chair. “Walt gone, you growed up.” He shakes his head and grabs his box of cigarettes. “Back to your ole’ stomping grounds, huh?” A smile slides over his sallow face.
“Remember my elaborate castles – the cigarette boxes?”
Still smiling, he flicks his hand towards a narrow cupboard. “There’s more in there. Just stuffed them in. For something. Someday.” He threw her a cocky glance, the smile melting. “When they put in them recyclin’ laws, well, I ain’t dancin’ to their song. Tit for tat.” He shakes his head, his fingers trembling as he lifts the stick to his mouth. “So, what did ya go fer? A doc?” He smashes a butt on the rim of the ashtray.
“What ya plannin’ to do with all those high-falutin ideas?” He hacks again.
Gretta laughs. “Not sure yet.”
He pulls a fresh cigarette from a dented pack and clears his throat noisily.
“Here.” She scoops up his lighter and with one deft flick coaxes out an orange and blue plume.
He grunts and draws in deeply, like a man refusing to accept the state of his lungs, and coughs again.
“You think maybe, Mac, it’s a bit…”
Intense eyes pin themselves on her. “A guy must take the few pleasures he can.”
She cannot argue here. Somehow, Mac without a grey haze above him seems wrong. They talk about everything and yet not really anything, punctuated by spastic coughs as if there’s a lot of debris inside those age worn bellows he needs to bring up. He parades before her his litany of troubles: restless legs, shot lungs, his inability to sleep at night. She feels like his geriatric partner playing a game of Bingo. Before he can launch into his bowel habits, she wants to ask if he remembers the endless chocolate milk, the games they all played, the little girl who ran amok from nook to cranny, giggling and playing her imaginative games.
But the words crowd her tongue and never make it farther. Somehow, an invisible wall seems to have formed around him in the years she’s been gone that she doesn’t quite know how to climb over.
After half an hour, she leaves. His eyes are getting heavy and he wants to turn in for the night.
“Do you need…want me to help?”
He laughs, and for a moment she nestles in the familiar timbre. “Little butterfly, these arms are stronger than you think.”
Little butterfly. She promises to be back.
He simply nods, another cough tearing through him. “I ain’t going anywhere.”
Returning home, she clutches memories that like embers still flare here and there.
She will resurrect what was.
The wind is waiting. It pushes her into the house and slams the door behind her.
Mother stands at the stove, staring expectantly. She stirs warm milk, her bedtime drink. Why does she need to stay up for her? She’s twenty-one now. Independent. A headache presses behind her ears. Why on earth did she have to come home? Mother would have been fine, arthritis or not. She could have found a job from some empty apartment, rather than from the stifling confines of her childhood home. For one tantalizing moment, she imagines simply walking out the door. But then she remembers Mac.
“How’s he really doing?” Mother probes.
“When did you last see him?”
“I pop in every so often.” She draws in a deep breath. “He’s often listening to the radio, sleeping in his chair. Lucille is a wonder. With my job and this ankle of mine –”
“He looks so…different.”
“We all age, Gretta, Mac too.” She shakes her head as if trying to clear a thought. “But, he’s still our Mac, isn’t he?” She searches Gretta’s face for affirmation.
For a moment, mother’s helplessness – her need for reassurance – irks her. But she concedes easily; it’s one point they see eye to eye on. “He looks so – ”
“Frailty is not often pleasant to see.” Her world once again righted, mother takes charge. “Come, let’s turn in for the night. This howling wind sure tires out a body.”
Mother looks at her, her mouth opening as if she wants to say more, then thinks better of it.
The wind grudgingly withdraws around midnight.
Once a day, Gretta wanders over to Mac’s. It’s always bitter tea and a stale biscuit. He talks about his aches and pains, blasts the government and its inefficiencies, and shoots down the climate crisis, one cigarette following another with barely an interlude.
At one point, she asks him for war stories, just like the old days.
He obliges. At first, he speaks in familiar lyrical tones of honour, of courage and dignity. She basks in the familiar, the painting of lush, entangled jungles, and towering elephant grass, of rice paddies and strange speech.
Caught on a wave of curiosity, she probes. No longer a child satisfied with the contours of the forest, she needs the veins on the leaves.
There’s a faraway look in his eyes. “It was…awful…but we…it’s all shadows now.”
What do you mean? She wants to ask, but courage fails her.
He clears his throat and his voice grows bold, defensive. “I was a good soldier. I fought for my country. That’s it. Everything else in between is just that.” He bites the last bit off severely.
For a moment he looks right through her and her skin erupts into gooseflesh. There is something in their depths she can’t put her finger to. But she knows she can’t pry. He’s locked it all up and thrown away the key.
She fights the urge to explore the house she once knew quite well, but suddenly she’s no longer a little child with bunny-like energy asked to occupy herself.
Instead, empty cans overflowing the garbage command. She takes out his garbage, washes his dishes.
He barely notices, often staring out the window.
“C’mon, Gretta girl, a game,” he orders one day. She obliges willingly. Scrabble, then Monopoly, the old game pieces still there. The shoe is hers (not the iron, mind you, it just reminds her of mother and her tiresome domesticity), much smaller than she remembers; or maybe, her hand is just bigger, the game boards fading and peeling at the edges, but still useable. Déjà vu drape overs her, and she can just make out the pleasant jibbing, the laughter ringing all around. On a roll, she buys properties left right and centre.
He cusses then. One profanity after the next.
The pleasant memories dissolve like sugar in water.
At first, he praises her, cheers her on. But then he starts arguing about the spelling of words, whose move it is. He often forgets what he’s doing, or thinks he’s winning when he’s not and then sulks. Gretta’s own competitive edge is hard to soften; it’s never had to be before; it was celebrated then, encouraged. But she’s no longer the child here. More often than not, her own temper flares and it takes everything in her to squash it. Finally, she throws in the towel and lets him win in the hopes of catching another familiar grin.
She teases, and tries to joke, scraping for the joy of former days, the cheesy humor. But the barrel is dry. Whatever echoes from the past might still sound from time to time, seem to slowly fade.
His nicotine-stained fingers continue to shake and he spills water often, cussing at himself until she cleans it up.
“Walt and you lived here practically,” he flings, as if it was an imposition. She just won a game with no effort. “Good ole’ Walt. Here he came alive.” His laugh sets off another coughing fit. “He needed me.”
He looks up knowingly from his cards. “We had a good arrangement.” And then he laughs again.
“I know.” But suddenly, she’s not quite sure.
“My little butterfly,” he chuckles, shaking his head. “Flittin’ around, not a care in the world.”
And that’s it. Little snippets of memory she comes back for like a starved dog, rifling through the pieces for the ones that resonate. But the images seem nuanced. Maybe it’s just that she’s peering through the lenses of adulthood, but deep in her belly, something jars – something that seems to slip away when she tries to probe it like one of those slippery specimens in a petri dish.
Then Lucille is back.
Suddenly it’s her and mother again. Music drowns out the whir of the machine. She paints and paints some more; the coulees, the endless Albertan sky, the elm trees, her brush always painting more than what’s there; brighter colours, Saskatoon berries that hang like fresh jewels, a little girl running freely, her blonde ponytails streaming behind her like ribbons. She drinks wine – too much wine, mother protests – and tries not to crawl up the walls.
And then just as suddenly, it’s all over.
Lucille stands at the front door a few weeks later, a plump woman with ginger hair wrested into a bun at the top of her head, her doughy arms crossed in front of her in that business-like manner. Mac’s cancer is back. His lungs are shot. Her father is getting sicker and her hands are tied. “Now look, you’re practically family to him.” Her voice is nasal and whiny. “I’ve done my time,” as if she’s finished a stint in jail. I can’t do this on my own. I know you’re working, Janet, but rumor has it Gretty is home for a bit,” she jerks her head in Gretta’s direction.
Gretty. She feels as if she’s bitten into something sour. But one look at mother and she knows the hook has snagged flesh. “Of course, Lucille.”
“‘Sides, ain’t nothing better for that man than a face in the spring of its life.”
Of course, she agrees, but for reasons mother and Lucille couldn’t possibly know.
Mac is sleeping, his thin form stretched out on the faded blue recliner.
“Let me give you the lay of the land,” Lucille smiles and pauses dramatically. “Did you see that?” She winks conspiratorially. “Lay of the land. War speak, Stuart always said,” one hand on hip as she blows a tendril of flaming hair from her mouth. “Now dear, you will need to slowly begin feeding him. His hands are beginning to shake more. You’ll also need to toilet and bathe him.”
She places her hands on her hips. “You young’uns know nothin’. I had to do it for my Stuart. Simply breathe through your mouth, and put your thoughts elsewhere. Be careful not to mix his medication, and to carefully follow the instructions.”
Mountains seem to pop up all over.
Lucille’s face softens then. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost. He’s dying. Slowly. It’s a waiting game now.”
There is a pull in her gut. “What about chemo?”
“He doesn’t want it. Said the toxic chemicals are one way for the government to cleanse the population. He’s made his choice and has a right to that. I’m not a body wantin’ to interfere. Lucky for you, his pain’s not that bad. But just in case, he’s got these.” Her hand sweeps over his panoply of meds.
“Hopefully it’ll not be long. He sleeps a lot. I’ve stocked the cupboards. Puree his food like. Gut issues. Blender’s in there,” she points at a corner cupboard. “Let him smoke as many as he likes. Now’s not the time for moral platitudes, though,” she pats her cheeks, “my sinuses despise it.”
Cigs have never been an issue. The girls at Uni handed them out like candy. Now mother is another story…
Lucille drops her voice to a whisper. “And no hospital.” She pulls back with a prim look to her face, lips pressed together knowingly. “Hates the place.”
“Likely the war. And those legs,” she gestures at the plastic limbs that have not moved an inch.
Lucille shrugs. “All I know is he hates the place. My Stuart went there and he died, you know? That was it. When them doors sealed behind him, I just knew in here,” she patted her generous bosom, “that he wasn’t coming out of there anymore.”
It is no jaunt, but Gretta falls into a new rhythm. She devotes hours at the side of her childhood friend, staring at his sleeping frame until she can almost see the dark brown hair, the laughing grey eyes, the rich booming of his voice. The daily paper is read to him, and she helps him with crosswords, and talks about the subjects that interest him. At first, he does not sleep much, despite Lucille’s projections. His mind is fuzzy at times. During his lucid moments, she manages to catch glimpses of the old Mac in his jokes, some timeworn and familiar, others new and appalling; and like some picky eater, she pars the fat from the bone, and savors the light-hearted voice that’s become so sparse.
Together they play endless board games. It’s all he wants, but it keeps her hands busy. His inane prattle grows increasingly incoherent. One time he calls her a Vietnamese pig when his temper flares. She feeds a dying flame while at the same time dousing it when it shoots higher than she can handle.
She refuses to tell mother of the decaying shell in the easy chair. Of the rank breath, the vile tongue. Of another cancer that seems to have infiltrated him, its vine-like tentacles twisting through and around his soul.
One day she holds a spoon to his cracked lips.
“Nature has its ways.”
“Mac?” There is a faraway look in his eyes.
“You do what you need to do.” He shoves the spoon away.
Was this really the man who opened his home and hearth to the searchers when sixteen-year-old Maissey Jenkins went missing? She’d been spotted last in this very area wearing a dusty rose dress with a pink, flowing sash; she liked to dress up. People said the community rallied like never before with Mac and father at the helm. The coffee flowed strong and free then. The Kingsman wood stove crackled pleasantly. It was such an exciting time from the perspective of a young girl. Mother tried keeping her home. After all, someone’s child was missing and hers could be next.
“She’s learning about how the community works together,” father argued. Mother then quietly agreed.
Everyone spilled into Mac’s bottom level. It was cozy, smelled of coffee and cigarette smoke. All familiar, like a warm hug.
“Here’s what we’ll do,” Mac said to the officer in charge. “I’ll open my home to citizens who want to help with the search. Got some good flashlights and bottomless coffee. We can meet there.”
Maissey had run away from home once before. A flighty girl with developmental delays. “Special” was the word tossed around then. But she thought of her as special in the way one views a treasure; something unique and precious. Only years later, she realized they’d meant something altogether different.
They would find her. The spring weather had been mild. The officer nodded his acceptance. “We need volunteers to comb this area. Come across evidence, footprints, anything even minor, please do not touch and get a hold of one of my men as soon as you can.”
Nothing turned up. And then a violent deluge hit the area; whatever evidence was to be stumbled across yet, was washed away.
Then Maissey’s father came to the door one evening. Like a little interloper, Gretta crouched at the top of the stairs to catch a glimpse of the desperate man.
“Look, Walter, she ain’t run away. Was gonna talk to you. Said something terribly weighty was on her mind. Wouldn’t tell me. Said she could deal with things herself.”
Father smiled gently. “I am terribly sorry, Mr. Jenkins, but I’ve never met Maissey.”
“Somethin’ was bothering her. She needed you.” Gretta remembered the raw pain on his face, the way he clung to the fragile thread of hope. Her body was so stiff with expectation, and she remembered feeling so deflated alongside him.
He never stopped by again.
She recalled the conversation between mother and father through the upstairs radiator weeks after the case was tentatively closed. “What’s Jenkins getting at, Walter?”
“It’s grief, Janet. Does strange things to the mind.”
Mother’s voice was soft. “But you knew her.”
“What are you talking about?” Once again, she feels his irritation; mother is like someone perpetually picking at a scab.
“I saw you talk to her one afternoon. I was coming back from the grocery store and you were talking to her on the sidewalk.”
“I don’t remember. I talk to many people. Do I have to tell you everything, Janet? When I go to the washroom…?”
Mother said something. Gretta had strained to hear.
The sudden crack on flesh made her jump and she scrambled to bed, to the safety of her comforter, deep underneath where any sounds could be muffled. And then she drifted off.
In the morning, the surface was smooth as glass. The smell of bacon permeated the air. Father puffed on his pipe and listened to the CBC, following the events of the Gulf War. Mother’s sewing machine whirred and whirred. That time she didn’t mind it too much. She played with her dolls. She can feel it now. The fondness swirling through with such warmth; the arguments under the radiator seemed like dramatic scenes from some fiction. Father was too kind to be that person; mother too quiet to be one with questions. Perhaps her imagination colored the nights so vividly, the dreams so dramatic and real, that she’d woven them into reality. Maybe she’d been peering into a different universe.
But now Gretta knew differently. Discordant notes have crept into a familiar melody.
Mother looks up when she enters. “Just in time for dinner; it’s potatoes and gravy and my prize string beans. Just a few stitches and Helen Judd’s blazer is altered.”
Dropping into her chair, she feels not the least bit hungry. “When?” The word wrangles itself from within her before she can check herself.
Mother’s small foot poises above the pedal. The needle ready for her command. “I don’t understand.”
“When?” She demands again, vibrations building deep in her belly. “When did you die inside?”
“Gretta, what are you saying?”
“Those albums, in your room. I saw them.”
“What about them, Gretta?” Deep furrows line her forehead.
“You’re nothing like that woman then. You were alive.” One afternoon, she’d come back before her mother’s return from Extendicare. Plopping on the floor in front of the living room bookcase, she plucked out an album that seemed unfamiliar. Grainy, sepia images, their edges curling with time, showed a woman brimming with vitality. In the gestures, posture, the way people acted around her, she was an unabashed woman with feeling and opinion.
“I was a young, flighty thing then, Gretta.”
“The radiator. I heard it all. You let him hit you.”
Mother’s hands slide from the machine, and she gets up. “Why now, Gretta?”
“Why couldn’t you be that happy, adventurous person? Father had to go to Mac to get away from you – from this – this perfection!” Her throat burns.
“Please, Gretta,” she begs grabbing for her arm. “I can’t imagine what’s gotten into you! We change. We make do. You don’t understand. Sometimes it’s best to leave things alone.”
It’s all a familiar tune. Gretta wants to pick further at it, to cut it open and lay it all bare, but sudden fatigue weighs her down.
That night in bed it’s as if a foot presses down on her chest. Rolling over, she lets her arm dangle off, and runs her fingers over the cold, metal radiator. It’s quiet. Then the familiar “clang” as heat rushes through.
It’s the middle of the night and she’s suddenly awake and sitting up. Darkness outside her window gapes like an open mouth ready to consume. Little butterfly resounds over and over in her mind.
The words suddenly taste bitter on the back of her tongue.
Mac sleeps most of the day, if one can call it that. He twists and groans, mutters and cusses. When he is awake, the radio absorbs him.
There are crosswords to complete, and images to paint on small canvases in the confines of the kitchen. Here Gretta can put distance between Mac and his tirade at whatever radio announcer is getting his goat. The pickings are not slim.
“Thao!” He shouts at one point.
“Thao – What?” she jumps up and scolds herself as paint drips over the table. He’s sitting in his recliner, using his twig-like arms to push himself up. “Mac…”
“Git over here,” he leers.
Her skin crawls as his clawed fingers grasp her shirt with surprising strength. What does he think he’s doing?
“You know you want it.” A button pops off as revulsion fills her.
“C’mon, Mac,” she struggles to unclench his fingers.
He’s undeterred, spittle forming at his mouth.
“Mac, stop it!” Shoving his hands away. “It’s me!”
He blinks as if to clear away a mote and recognition dawns. “Gretta.” He slumps back. “I need a drink.”
“I’ll get some water.”
“No, no,” he grows agitated again. “Drink. Give me the real stuff.”
Then one afternoon during a nap, his eyes pop open for a minute. They are wide and yellow and fearful. “It burns, it burns!” He hits his stumps, fumbles at them. Then his arm jerks, and his eyes slide shut. One final moan and he’s quiet.
Still shaking, Gretta walks back to the kitchen. And then she sees them, as if for the first time: an army of medication. Enough to end it for him.
There’s a sudden drop in her gut – a horror the thought even crossed her mind.
On Sunday, she and mother go to church. There kitty corner from them sits Adam Jenkins, Maissey’s father. He’s stooped and grey. The light streaming in from the stained glass next to him casts a halo over his head.
Where is Maissey? Where has she been all these years? Did she wander off on her own? Run away?
Back at the house she asks mother: “Remember Maissey?”
Mother’s brows furrow as she hangs up her jacket. “You remember her? You were so little. I haven’t heard that name for so long.”
“Father did something to her, didn’t he?”
She moves against the wall, a skewered moth, wings flapping. “What on earth do you mean, Gretta?”
You share the moment at the radiator.
Mother’s lips pinch tight and she turns away. Her voice is strangled. “He was an upstanding, church going man, and I’ll not have you – ”
“Why did she need to see him?”
“She shouldn’t have been out there alone at night!” She bursts out. “Girl was always too friendly; a bit of a simpleton.”
She remembered others having said that. Very developed girl, a bit slow, too friendly. “Why are you protecting Father? He’s gone now, Mother. He can’t hurt you anymore.”
“Oh, Gretta, you could always push so. Sometimes it’s better to let things lie.” She draws in a deep breath and makes a beeline for the coffee pot. Something is lurking in those green eyes. Pain? Fear?
“Hiding the truth doesn’t alter it, Mother.”
“And picking at it doesn’t help either!” The coffee pot shakes in her hands, old brew sloshing against the glass wall. “He got carried away under his drink one day.”
“He raped her?”
Mother flinches as if she’s been slapped.
“The world doesn’t stop outside of the church doors, Mother.”
She turns around. “He only hit me when he drank. When he went to Mac’s he no longer got drunk at home. He left me alone. He was happier. With the drink – then it was not really Father, but someone different.” She shook her head. “He confessed he got a bit bold one day, but that was all he did. I forgave him.”
A bit bold? “His crime was not yours to forgive!”
That night Gretta dreams of Vietnamese women huddling together, eyes dark, their pain reaching deep into her soul. Mouths opening in silent screams as small hands press tattered clothing to near-naked frames.
A violent thud. She whips around to see Mac sprawled on the floor. He flails his blistered leg, his head jerking back in an angry scream. A bottle lies at his side, dripping, fumes biting her nostrils.
How? Why? She reaches for him. But his angry eyes pin her back.
Then sobbing behind her.
Suddenly she’s in bed. Damp sheets twist around her body. The sobbing continues.
The floor is cool. Legs shaking, she nearly falls.
It’s quiet as she slinks down the stairs, moonlight saturating the kitchen.
Then she sees the cause of the thud, sidelined on the floor like some wounded animal, a deep scratch in its cool white skin. Hoisting it up, Gretta places it on the table. She plugs in the cord and presses the pedal. Obediently, the needle dips.
For the first time she sees it for what it’s always been: a force of security and stability.
A few days later, Gretta moves in with Mac to give him round the clock care, but like a burr, the memory of Maissey sticks to her.
During long hours, she roams his house, looking for the fragments of what once was. Like some intruder exploring foreign territory, she searches the home of a man she never really knew – a man in the clutches of something she can’t define. Everything seems to fall apart like a flimsy card structure. Everything about him suddenly repels her, and yet she keeps searching like a blind woman, seeking for what was.
Hanging askew on the wall is the dartboard, smaller than she remembers, and much less grand. The carpet is still thin and orange and musty. Stingy rays of sunlight pour through a small window. There is a low table and two beaten-up floral couches. The small Kingsman sits cold as it has for years since Mac procured space heaters for the upstairs. Stacks of National Geographic sit shoved against a wall, a layer of dust obliterating most of the words on the top cover. The walls are deep brown panelling, stained and musty. Here and there she picks out a familiar scratch and little thrills surge through her.
For a moment she wonders how they all fit into this room that fateful evening – the helpful townspeople, father, mother, and Mac. And of course, herself. She’d frolicked with childhood abandon; the only child there, adored and cheered on. Heat suddenly flames her cheeks. Children can be so self-centred in their innocence. Against a backdrop of an unfolding crisis, she’d twirled and twirled. Maissey bobbed at the edges of her mind; there, but unseen.
Suddenly, a ray of light catches something bright on the floor next to one of the couches, and splinters around it. Gretta drops to her feet. Nestled in the carpet lies a small diamond earring.
Picking it up, she examines it closely. There’s something familiar about it. Perhaps all those years ago, one of the townspeople had lost it, and it lay here for years unnoticed until now.
She turns it in her fingers.
At the library she pours over newspapers dating back to the nineties. Suddenly, she stops. That face – those smiling eyes! Then she finds it. April 10, 1995. The yellowed paper shouts: “Local Girl Disappears”. Looking closer, there is a distinct braid looped at each side of her head. The image is the one she remembers – the one catalogued in her mind – the one she’s visited over the years – the latest one Jenkins had of her that was plastered all over the news then. Maissey stands with head tilted, in her dusty rose satin birthday dress (dusty rose, all the rage then), complete with pink sash. With a trembling hand, Gretta lays the diamond earring at her ear.
Her stomach drops to her toes. They’re the same.
The next afternoon, she stands at the top of the stairs leading into the basement.
Retrieving the earring from her pocket she turns the cool jewel over and over in her hand. The next thing she knows, she’s downstairs again.
Then she remembers something. She’d been having a jolly time that evening, dancing from one end of the room to the other. Agitated voices all around. No one paying attention to her energetic twirls. And then she fell. No, tripped. Over something. Mac had just called the party upstairs to begin the search as everyone was ready, and the obedient troop followed him up. Father swooped her off the floor, muttering: “Those two left feet, Gretta, those two left feet,” and followed the group up.
She’d been hurt at his reference to her lack of grace, not the carpet burns on her knee. Instinctively she reaches down to rub her knee.
Dropping to her knees by the one couch she’d danced beside she notices an odd fold in the rug, as if it’s not been stapled to the floor. It was the likely culprit.
Tugging at the carpet, it lifts up along one seam. The couch. Adrenaline courses through her and her arms seems to buzz. The heavy oaken furniture with the burnt orange and floral fabric is heavy, but she summons all her strength.
Gretta’s heart flits around like some frenzied moth. This room is just some musty hole now, with little light, where she’d once been the life of the party. The carpet groans with reluctance as she hoists it back, wanting to fold into the stiff shape it’s held for years. A cloud of dust billows up, and the musty smell is more pronounced.
A large section is folded back. Staring back at her is a simple trap door. Kneeling down, she rubs her hands over the smooth wood, chewing her lip. Perhaps those who’d owned the house before Mac had stored treasures down there. Perhaps it’s nothing more than crawlspace and dirt.
And yet, a heavy feeling drapes over her, a feeling she can’t shake off.
Before she knows it, the trapdoor yawns like an arthritic jaw. It remains open at a ninety-degree angle, leading into a dark hole.
She contemplates allowing the carpet to jerk back into its unnatural pose.
But something nags at her. Sweaty fingers fumble for Mac’s lighter, the one she carries with her in case he needs a flame, and she flicks the metal wheel once, then twice. A reluctant flame jumps out. Placing one hand on the open latch, her heart jerks. The flame trembles as it is lowered, its orange light stabbing the darkness, revealing a rickety set of steps angling downwards.
Something is caught on the steps. Leaning closer, she tries not to fall in.
Then her heart lodges in her throat. Hanging down from one of the steps is a piece of fabric caught on a splinter of wood.
Reaching deep, she yanks it free, then sits up, the ceiling reeling above her.
The fabric burns in her fingers and she takes in a deep breath. Clutched in her hand is a long, pink sash.
How – why?
Somehow, she closes the door to the bowels of the house, and lets the carpet fall back with a groan.
Creeping up the stairs on legs made of jelly, she collapses on a kitchen chair.
Somewhere in the distance he is calling her over the roar in her ears. She can’t move.
He calls again.
But her body won’t stop shaking.
And then again; a voice weak, yet demanding.
Knuckles white, fingers squeezing the sash, she crawls as it were to his room.
Like a magnet, his jaundiced eyes make for her hand. Something flickers.
He knows. He’s always known.
“It was – it was in your crawlspace.”
He closes his eyes.
“Mac!” She cannot let him slip into the void. “It’s not true – she’s not…”
“It’s time.” His eyes remain closed.
“To die.” A rush fills your ears.
“The pills.” His breathing is laboured. Pain squeezes his face. “Give ‘em to me.”
She’s come this far. “Maissey. Maissey Jenkins, Mac. It was – it was in your crawlspace, on the ladder.”
He opens his eyes. “In the kitchen, there are enough meds – ”
“You need to.”
Her eyes leak, hot and burning. “First, tell me about Maissey. Please, Mac.”
He turns his head. “Stupid girl,” he rasps. “She wanted me to help her. To get at Walt. To expose him. He just got carried away. She was gonna ruin him; make it more than it was.” He closed his eyes for a moment, then: “She couldn’t let it be.”
At that moment it hits her. It was never father she looked up to; it was really Mac. Suddenly, she is clinging to a strand of hope; maybe she can stitch together this old narrative.
“She came. To the house.”
Her heart hangs there by a thread.
“I told her to come down.”
“I strangled her.”
And just like that he severs the thread. “Please, Mac!”
“Such an innocent. Your world of bubbles and wrap and castles and glory. And God. It’s every man for himself.” The glint is back. The hardness around the pupils. That cold look that remains if all else is stripped away. Nothing can soften it. It knows; it’s been to the other side.
She swallows down the bile rising in her throat. He’s been dying all along, and it’s not the cancer she thinks with bitterness.
“The meds. Give them to me, butterfly.”
Something finally tears loose inside, leaving a gaping hole.
Covering her ears, she turns and stumbles out of the house, into the darkness, clutching the sash against her. Pain radiates in hot waves. Legs are rubber. Falling to the ground, her lungs burn. Heart slams against soft earth.
Everything a house of cards, carefully constructed.
Until she pulled out one card.
Mother holds her tight. “They’re coming for him.” Her voice is strong and sure.
As thick blue and red beams sweep away darkness and sirens pierce the night, Gretta collapses into her arms.
For the first time in days, the wind is silent.